Mark These Words

2 April 2022

Refugees Minister Richard Harrington Promises Those Fleeing Ukraine Won’t Wait More Than Two Days

The refugees minister has pledged to process visas for those fleeing Ukraine within 48 hours and bring in 15,000 people a week following criticism that those seeking safety from the war in Britain have faced long delays.

Lord Harrington of Watford said he has set himself the ambitious targets after he admitted that only “hundreds” of refugees have arrived in Britain under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

When the scheme was launched on March 18, it was estimated that the Home Office would be able to process 10,000 visas in the first week. The exact number of refugees who have arrived will be published this week.

The former Conservative MP said the process had been “far too slow”. He added: “We did not have and we’ve never had a proper system of administering the mass flow of people from abroad. The asylum system, the Syrian refugee programme, and everything else was based on a much smaller volume of people.”

Harrington, 64, who is the grandson of Russian refugees who fled a pogrom in the early 1900s, has applied to become a sponsor himself and has offered a flat in London that he owns with his fiancée, the former Tory MP Jessica Lee, to a Ukrainian family.

He said there are people “working overtime every evening and seven days a week” to speed up the process, but added: “It is not as automated as it should be.”

He said the multiple checks being carried out on refugees and their UK sponsors, including those on passports and the international watchlist, were taking “far too long”. With Priti Patel, the home secretary, he is working to reduce the 51-page application form that Ukrainians must fill in. It includes questions such as: “Are you a war criminal?”

Harrington said: “I want to get this process down to a reasonable amount of time. I am happy to say publicly that my target is 48 hours from when they download the application form to when they are given permission to travel.”

He also backs the idea of using sanctioned oligarchs’ homes to house refugees but claims that he is focusing on the 200,000 people in the UK who have offered to put up refugees. “The government is taking legal advice on this,” he said.

Harrington, a remainer, resigned from the government over Brexit and had the Conservative whip withdrawn by Boris Johnson before standing down as an MP in 2019. He was elevated to the Lords last month specifically to do this job.

He said the prime minister gave him only two instructions before taking up the role — that the refugee scheme for Ukranians would be uncapped and that security checks must be performed on all those entering the UK.

“People ask what possible security concerns there could be about all these women and children leaving Ukraine,” he said. “It’s not because we are worried about being infiltrated by Putin’s spies. It’s about our concerns about people trafficking ... We have to be certain that the children are the children of the mothers coming in.”

Harrington, who gave up a lucrative career in the private sector to take on the role, said Patel and Michael Gove, the housing secretary, were also “obsessed” with getting the scheme right.

“I thought I was finished in politics. I took this job for the refugees. I will do it for as long as it’s needed to be done.”

Extracted from Sunday Times

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